Internet Memes and Virality
The purpose of this thesis is to explore how Internet users respond creatively to mainstream viral events through the making of Internet memes. Drawing on Bruhn Jensen’s concepts media of three degrees and communication in three steps (2013), I attempt to show how digital media of the third degree support a unique many-to-many communication. This allows information to diffuse rapidly across social networks and creates what is known as a viral spread.
While it seems that much of the academic literature finds it difficult to differentiate something viral from a meme, I attempt to make a clear distinction between the two concepts. Like Nahon & Hemsley (2013) I understand virality as a social information flow process associated with a single object, whereas the meme defines a group of digital “texts” (photos, videos, GIFs, etc.), which 1) refer to and vary over a common text or template, 2) share common characteristics in terms of content, form and/or stance and 3) are shared, imitated and/or remixed on the Internet.
Through a case study of the “Oscar-selfie”, the selfie orchestrated by Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres during the 2014 broadcast that became the most retweeted image to date, I explore the relationship between the viral object and its user-generated variations. After analyzing 125 still images posted to Google+, Imgur, Reddit, Tumblr and Twitter, I illustrate how the photoshopability and templatability of the original “Oscar-selfie” determines clear patterns for the ways in which user-generated variations differ in content, form and stance. Comparing these variations in content and form, I produce a list of nine separate templates that capture as many as 121 of the 125 variations. Inspired by Rintels notion of snowclones (Rintel 2013), I attempt to demonstrate how each template contains one or more variables, which users must replace to fill out the template. The case study seems to indicate that the choice of template and the content of the variables are determined by the sender’s identity and the sender’s previous practice of creating memes. This finding calls into question the creative element in the creation of memes.
The thesis concludes with an assessment of the context of the case study findings and the argument that the results of the assessment seem contingent upon the existence or absence of a visual core object and whether the meme stems from a subcultural online phenomenon or a mainstream event.
Download the thesis (written in Danish)